PRODUCE PACKAGING: A Window To The Product

Originally printed in the October 2018 issue of Produce Business.

Myriad factors can influence consumers, including color, branding and price.

The package may have the potential to play a far greater role in helping fruits and vegetables fly off produce department shelves.

“A lot of people think not enough emphasis is placed on seeing the ways packaging can sell produce,” says Hans Schur, owner and chief executive of Schur Packaging Systems, Oceanside, CA. “There’s room to grow.”

Schur, whose family has provided packaging solutions for six generations, says shapes, sizes and graphics can make the package stand out and disrupt the shelf to make the products more visible.

Nothing says fresh produce like fresh produce, which is why a clear window to the product is an indispensable aspect of packaging.

“Ideally, consumers want a 360-degree view of their food,” says Carrie Cline, senior product manager at InLine Plastics Corp., Shelton, CT. “Product visibility, particularly in plastic packages, is highly preferred for items on the perimeter of the store. A window only shows a portion of the contents. Being able to see as much of the food as possible is shown to attract consumers.”

InLine Plastics, which developed Surelock packaging in the 1980s, boasts the Safe-T-Fresh line of clear plastic packages that offers a 360-degree view of the product and are tamper evident and resistant, and perimeter-sealed for freshness.

The choice becomes a little more complicated, however, when you consider that in addition to offering a window to the produce, packaging also must help in grabbing customers’ attention and offering information.

“The packaging window is a good way to reveal the quality of the product, however, the size should be strategic where it leaves enough room on the package for artwork and branding,” says Ryan Talag, marketing and new business associate at Chantler Packaging, Mississauga, ON. “We made artwork for a potato client where the package had a window. The complete bag has a premium look with modern colors and custom photography. This is what pops out at the retail level. When it attracts the customer, he/she can pick up the bag and inspect the product closer through the window, which is also shaped as a sweet potato.”

Ernest and John Chantler began offering packaging for the food industry in the 1930s, and the company they started now offers One World Sourcing, in which experts at their Canadian headquarters work with customers to design packaging that is then made more economically overseas.

Since the packaging serves competing purposes the first question to answer is: What size window?

What Size Window?

There is no one answer to this question, no one-size-fits-all solution.

“We have seen every design, from almost 100-percent ink coverage to sparse ink coverage to allow for the product to be shown better,” says Joe Bradford, vice president of sales at Temkin International, Payson, UT.

Temkin International produces packaging for many products, including produce, at four locations and offers high-end options including the most modern, full-color printing.
Some produce items need to be merchandised in packaging that offers a very good look at the product.

“Clarity and maximum visibility of the product are very important for cut and processed produce items,” says Roman Forowycz, vice president for integrated solutions at Sonoco Global Flexibles, Elk Grove Village, IL.

“When graphics are used, they typically include lighter colors and newer matte surfaces with large clear areas and windows. The goal is to communicate with consumers without making the products look highly processed,” says Forowycz.

Sonoco, which acquired Clear Lam Packaging in 2017, has grown from a company with a dozen workers in a rented South Carolina warehouse in the late 19th century to employing 20,000 people offering package solutions in 33 countries.

“Clarity and maximum visibility of the product is very important for cut and processed produce items. … The goal is to communicate with consumers without making the products look highly processed.”

— Roman Forowycz, Sonoco Global Flexibles

To a certain extent, size or shape of the package can help capture customers’ attention without sacrificing the size of the window.

“Retailers are always on the lookout for new and interesting packaging options to increase marketability and provide a lift in sales,” says InLine Plastics’ Cline. “This can be achieved through new size offerings, a refresh in the branding and innovative labeling. There are occasions where the container design itself factors into choosing one produce supplier over another. Our customers partner with us to design packaging containers that retailers can rely on to attract and meet consumer demands.”

The tradeoff between the size of the view and the space for messaging also can be made more palatable by using material that makes the window as clear as possible.

“Cast polypropylene (CPP) is the best material for clarity when a customer wants to show off the product, for example green beans, peppers,” says Mohsin Masud, head of sales for Canada at Chantler Packaging.“Chantler has developed a freezer-grade CPP as an alternate to polyethylene (PE), for great retail presence and functionality as retailers and customers can put them in the freezer without the package breaking. For leafy greens, micro-perforated biaxially oriented polypropylene (BOPP) works best to reduce condensation, which can cause bacteria build up. It also is a good anti-fog material.”

A choice between space for the window or for the messaging is usually best made if you accept that a trade-off is unavoidable.

“For consumers, messaging and labeling are just as important as the container when making a purchasing decision,” says Cline. “The feedback is clear: consumers prefer simplicity. And they want clear packaging in order to see their food. For retailers, shape and size is also a key component. It is important that the product fits the package perfectly.

“For consumers, messaging and labeling are just as important as the container when making a purchasing decision. The feedback is clear: consumers prefer simplicity. And they want clear packaging in order to see their food.”

— Carrie Cline, InLine Plastics

“When choosing a vendor, retailers will look for suppliers that offer a variety of shapes and sizes, with the clarity consumers prefer. Of course, price is always taken into account when making the final supplier decision as well,” adds Cline.

Color It In Earth Tones

Next to the size of the window, the color of the packaging may have the biggest impact on merchandising.

“Depending on the product, color can be influential,” says Cline. “Recent research indicates consumers are enticed by the color green, since it has a known association with symbolizing ‘freshness’ in produce environments. But above all, clarity is what consumers demand. They want to see the food in the package and let the food translate color.”

There may be a general trend in the direction of earth-tone packaging as a way to convey the produce is nature-friendly.

“We are seeing a continuing trend of earth-tone colors, matte finishes are still popular, and registered matte with areas of gloss have become very popular,” says Temkin International’s Bradford. “When registering matte, designers are creating depth, texture and a more concentrated focal point on the bag.”

There must be a fit, however, between the color of the packaging and the produce item it displays.

“Beyond artwork design, our concern is print quality. We want to ensure whatever the color or design, all printing is executed properly and consistently.”

—Ryan Talag, Chantler Packaging

“We have clients who use a variety of colors,” says Chantler Packaging’s Talag. “Usually the artwork is designed to work well with the product, like using a red for tomatoes or blue to represent fresh watery cucumber. Beyond artwork design, our concern is print quality. We want to ensure whatever the color or design, all printing is executed properly and consistently. If a bag looks faded or the printing is sloppy, it can represent a poor quality product or a grower who doesn’t care about the details.”

Whatever the colors, high-quality graphics make a statement about the product and the store that is worth the investment.

“The graphics are important,” says Schur of Schur Packaging Systems. “The quality of the print and of the seal, the overall quality of the package matters.”

The look of the package may vary with the product, which can impact both the importance of visibility and the requirements to extend shelf life.

“The packaging materials used for produce vary depending on the product, the distribution demands and shelf life needs,” advises Forowycz. “Some packaging materials are very simple and are made from one type of material. Others are multi-layer structures that may help to extend freshness. Some products are best packaged in plastics. Others may be able to utilize pulp materials.”

Keep It Fresh And Secure

Packaging that visibly serves a purpose for the customer can help encourage produce purchases.

“Consumer-friendly packaging, such as the handle bag, can help,” says Schur. “In many cases, it gives the opportunity to store the leftover produce at home in the bag it came in.”

Technical advances in packaging that improve the shelf life of produce can also help with merchandising.

“We are seeing a continuing trend of earth-tone colors, matte finishes are still popular, and registered matte with areas of gloss have become very popular.”

— Joe Bradford, Temkin International

“Modified atmosphere packaging has been progressing for years,” says Temkin’s Bradford. “Retailers, packers, marketers and shipping companies have all worked to improve their processes to increase the shelf life of produce. Consumers have demanded that produce stay fresher for a longer period of time. That has pushed packaging companies to come up with solutions to increase shelf life.”

Some of the improvements actually make it easier to see the produce while maintaining freshness.

“Anti-fog materials, laser perf specifications and proper material use have improved,” says Bradford. “Materials like HydroSure have been introduced into the market to control humidity. While there is not a ‘one size fits all’ material, there are materials designed to increase shelf life of certain commodities.”

Modern packaging also improves the ability to manage inventory and recall product in cases of contamination.

“Some people are using smart labels, but most people want the UPC code. It gives you the product identification at the supermarket so you charge the right price.”

— Kurt Zuhlke, Kurt Zuhlke & Associates

“Some people are using smart labels, but most people want the UPC code,” says Kurt Zuhlke, president of Kurt Zuhlke & Associates, Easton, PA. “It gives you the product identification at the supermarket so you charge the right price.”

Kurt Zuhlke & Associates, a 56-year-old company, offers a line of packaging made from 100 percent recyclable materials.

“The smart label is the box you see that takes you to a website,” says Zuhlke. “We’ve seen them used, but we don’t use them. I think they are mainly a fad that will not be widely used.”

Clear plastic helps to sell produce because it lets you see the product, and protects shelf life.

“We have found consumers perceive plastic packaging to extend the shelf life and offer better protection for the contents,” says InLine Plastics’ Cline. “It also makes it easy to organize and neatly stack containers in the fridge and pantry. This applies to both fresh and prepared foods, as well as snacks and on-the-go items. While brown bags and boxes instill a homemade feeling, consumers tend to be more concerned with the shelf life and quality of products not packaged in plastic. It is important to also note, that too much packaging can appear wasteful and may deter consumers.”

The package can play a role in letting a retailer make a statement and differentiate itself from the rest.

“We have seen examples of packaging being used to differentiate similar products on retail shelves,” says Sonoco’s Forowycz. “Many new private-label items utilize distinct packaging formats to differentiate from national brands. Others add features to packaging that enhance the consumer experience, such as resealing/reclosing. Today we are starting to see retailers begin to make decisions based on whether packaging is recyclable.”


Bringing Science To Packaging Issues

Looking toward the future, the Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources is leading the way with a variety of research projects through its Center for Packaging Innovation and Sustainability.

One study at the Michigan State center established the current state of consumer perceptions of packaging, and offered suggestions for communication strategies for producers and retailers.

Another Michigan State study assembled an impressive array of statistical information on the use of bio-based plastic materials and concluded more information is needed.
“Understanding the impacts caused by the production of bioplastics is the first step on the path to a more sustainable bioplastic, and in order to accurately evaluate these impacts the data gaps must be resolved,” says a team of researchers led by Martin Patel, chair for energy efficiency of the energy group at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

One team of researchers developed a software tool that lets users determine when returnable and reusable packages are economically and sustainable alternatives to single-use options.

There is also a study of why many consumers do not recycle, even though they say they understand it is good for the environment.

A more complete list of completed research studies on packaging can be accessed on the Center’s website (www.canr.msu.edu/cpis/research/funded_research_projects).

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